Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Most of America’s churches are small

One of my “other jobs” is stated clerk of the St. Andrew Presbytery, which is the North Mississippi regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church. As such, I am involved with every minister who comes in, goes out, or otherwise moves from one congregation to another. I see a lot; I hear even more.

One thing is that people want ministers who will make their churches grow. People say that even if their community is losing population. They also have a picture that if the congregation can just attract a young minister with an attractive wife and beautiful children, that this will get their young people coming and bring in other young people not previously involved.

The flip side is that young married ministers are reluctant for their families’ sake to come to small churches with few kids. They want a town with excellent schools, new people moving in, and lots of growth potential. Add to this the fact that about half of new seminary graduates are “second career” men and women — middle aged with their children already grown, and the supply of nice young ministers is simply not what it used to be. And those that are available are likely to gravitate to the denomination’s fastest-growing locations, not the small churches of North Mississippi.

Your typical pastor today has invested at least three years past college, getting a ministerial education. Those with a doctorate have put in five or more years past college.

Ministers do not enter their calling with a desire to get rich, but congregations ought to at least cast an eye toward what other professionals with comparable education receive, for I think the situation that now prevails goes a long way to explaining the shortage of young ministers I alluded to in the paragraph above.

Moreover, about half of all seminary graduates use their training for other purposes than parish ministry. They go into teaching, counseling, corporate work, or simply use their learning to enrich their lives as they earn their living in diverse fields. Of those who do enter the parish ministry, a staggering number abandon parish work after their first call. Since denominations invest huge sums in educating ministers in their seminaries, this is a vitally important dilemma that congregations need to address.

These numbers are so large, in fact, that the Lilly Foundation has recently given a grant to the churches to study the problem.

Most of our ministers, it seems, come from large city congregations and envision that they will serve in a church like the one where they grew up. But about 90 percent of America’s churches are in small towns and rural areas.

Let us face it. Most local churches are shrinking. The few that are growing have adopted a “regional approach,” and are simply gathering members from small churches in the vicinity. There are few fresh converts.

I keep statistics for the 70 Presbyterian churches in north Mississippi, and I have my own theory about why churches lose members. Pastorates are becoming shorter, and in my communion, at least, I find that congregations tend to lose a few more members every time they change pastors, especially if the change of ministers was surrounded by controversy. This is because in our current “Wal-Mart” culture, the old merchant class of middle-class folk who once populated our pews is shrinking.

In today’s world it is very hard for congregations to grow. In rural America “keeping even” is the challenge. Congregations in the “Wal-Mart” towns seldom regain their losses, so they ought to be very careful to nurture the members they have.

A report on National Public Radio from Magnolia, Arkansas, a town of about 10,000 people, sums up the dilemma. The area has poor schools and a growing underclass. Meanwhile, the children who have advantages largely move away. In fact, in the South, most college and university graduates do leave the states where they grew up.

With “outsourcing” and industry moving overseas, the need for good schools and “knowledge-based” employment is greater than ever, and until these problems are addressed, the dilemma of the shrinking local congregation is not going to be addressed.

Ministers also complain about the petty quarreling and turf battles that characterize some (not all) congregations.

Who wants to labor through four years of college and three years of seminary to get bogged down with that? Churches are to care for Christ’s “least, last, and lost,” and this includes the petty and querulous, but it is the duty of wiser, stronger leaders to make sure the gospel’s progress is not stymied by such needy folk and their troubles.

The renaissance of the small church is a momentous challenge. The future of Christendom depends upon it, and I am deeply committed to it. But it is going to take more than a stirring sermon and a thumping choir. A lot more.

But I do have a glimmer of hope. Average Christians really do want to be involved in mission. And I think that the churches that do survive will be the ones that find a way to reach out and serve others in creative, practical ways.

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